In a rare opportunity to pull back the curtain on theater production in an intimate setting, La Jolla High School graduate and playwright Mike Lew stopped by his Alma Mater to talk to English and drama students Sept. 12. His production “Tiger Style” is playing at La Jolla Playhouse through Oct. 2.
Joined by La Jolla Playhouse dramaturg Shirley Fishman, Lew explained what his production is about, the experiences that inspired it, his history with playwriting and he answered questions from the students.
Lew, who graduated in 1999, explained that “Tiger Style” is about “an egghead pair of Chinese-American siblings who ruled at academics but suck at adult life … and who decide to go to China. So it’s an exploration into what all this academic study is for and where are we in terms of race relations in America … told from a Chinese perspective.”
Fishman was on hand to explain her role in getting his production from page to stage. “Once a play is chosen, a dramaturg is assigned to it. I research the themes and the references in the play, anything that an actor might not understand (such as a type of food), so they have a grounding in what the play is about. … I also work with the playwright and develop the characters and the themes,” she said.
“During the preview process, which is the first time the piece is shown to an audience, I read the audience to see what people are getting and not getting — when they start to fidget and start unwrapping candy — to help understand what they are connecting with and what needs finessing,” she added. “You learn a lot about theater, playwriting, directing and the subject matter of each play as a dramaturg. It’s a privilege to be of service to the development of plays.”
Lew said he was appreciative of Fishman’s participation given the play touches on Chinese culture. But in addition to the heavier themes of race relations and how his production can resonate with any number of cultural backgrounds, Lew, who typically writes comedies, gave credence to the lighter medium.
“I’m trying to use comedy like a weapon to talk about the world. … I feel like if you were sitting through a two-hour drama on these subjects, people would check out, but if you have these people that are acting in a foolish way, you can take in the messages in a different way.”
He said his next plays include a comedic, teenage adaption of Richard III called “Teenage Dick”; a trilogy he is writing with his wife Rehana; and a musical about a dance competition, which Lew said is “like ‘Bring It On’ with Indian dancing.”
He encouraged students to use what they know and see for inspiration, particularly their friends and those around them. “A lot of my inspirations are my peers,” he said, including a friend with cerebral palsy who helped inspire Teenage Dick. “He took the story and gave it a new perspective.”
Of course, there is always family for inspiration, too. “You think your family dynamic is how life is supposed to be, then you meet others from another dynamic and see that things that you think are normal may not be,” he said. “I learned that when I got married and explained my Christmas traditions to my wife and she looked at me like I was crazy.”
As the afternoon concluded, Lew also answered questions about the business side of playwriting, and spoke to the rewarding, but terrifying, aspect of his profession. “You are putting some version of yourself out there when you write a play, and there are times it’s going to feel very raw and you don’t know how audiences are going to take it, but there are parts of it that are so rewarding,” he said.